Album Review: Crack Cloud – Tough Baby

[Meat Machine; 2022]

In chaos and crumbling, Crack Cloud continue to find hope. Hell, they even sound put together — as if the abounding ashes produced by destruction are not the end, but the fragmented means and morsels toward something greater and better.

Since the release of their aptly-titled debut Pain Olympics, the world has deteriorated into dystopic wreckage, more than it had been. Insidious nuisances, no doubt, global and cultural crises have served as mere addendums to far more personal and localized tragedies Crack Cloud have been braving ever since and because of their formation. But the accelerated depravity of the past few years, whether universal or domestic, has been no surprise to the Vancouver band — they’ve proven to be clairvoyants through turmoil and subsequent apathy, remaining unified despite it all.

Always wary of the uneven road ahead, Crack Cloud have embraced dystopia with expectancy while still recognizing that art, especially music, can heal when wounds become scars. But that doesn’t mean Crack Cloud weren’t troubled by the socio-economic stressors that usually derail small artists who do this whole music thing their own unabashed way. Given the environment and conditions from which much of Crack Cloud’s art is made, there was much uncertainty over whether they’d release music again. They even admitted this on the heels of releasing a debut record to the chagrin of much praise. But this recognition has shifted plans, and it continues to bear fruit — this time far sweeter and saccharine in the form of their new album titled Tough Baby.

Crack Cloud’s last record predicted a near future weighed down by uncertainty and debauchery, opening up with an ominous culmination of sounds: the incessant thwacks of shotgun drums, modulated voice menace, and the sound of shit literally going down the drain. But Tough Baby offers a different tone, commencing with a somber and endearing gesture — a home-recorded sample of Danny Choy, the father of the band’s drummer and vocalist Zachary Choy, encouraging his child to create when all else fails and falls.

Danny is no longer here, having passed away when he was 29 when Zachary was a child. Now 29 himself, Choy is at a benchmark moment in his life, leading the way by virtue of celebration, appreciation, and a heart toward healing on the band’s latest.

With this personal touch, Choy has once again positioned himself as Crack Cloud’s de facto frontperson. And though much of Tough Baby’s emotional structure rests in the foundation of Choy’s self-examination of transient childhood memory and innocence, there’s no ego behind him being the center of attention. His thoughts serve as mere reflections of an underlying message that’s driven by the band’s shared spirit of universality and collaboration.

Coalescing to fulfill what is at first an unsightly vision but sweet beneath at second glance, Crack Cloud are a mutually supportive family kept alive by shared ideas and even shared pain. So while Choy’s prominence as a lead has grown, the communal and equitable quality of the band’s ethos has magnified to an identical degree. This sense of camaraderie and partnership manifests in typical Crack Cloud fashion, with rowdy noise-making and shouty sing-alongs deluging the entirety of Tough Baby. This may result in instances that feel aimless, but a unified pluralism supersedes any perceived messiness.

Singles “Please Yourself” and “Tough Baby” offer an accepting embrace with its communal ethos, but this collective spirit is further and more effectively personified by moments that suggest a different story, those of seeming desolation and hopelessness. The doom-laden “Criminal”, the band’s heaviest turn, hears Choy front and center, stressing his bratty voice to a strain as he begrudgingly deplores a system “that shines on few but leaves most behind”. Needless to say, it’s the rest of the band that takes prominence here, playing their heart out with a performance fueled by the desire to be seen and most certainly heard. Horns mourn alongside monastic backing vocals; guitars scramble with confusion, meanwhile drums pound away in preparation for a final battle — a doom-ridden combination that sounds risen straight from hell. Still, with the many coalescing parts, “Criminal” will also remind us that the band is not one person, but many.

The equally unstable “115 At Night” follows suit as a logical progression to the sinister “Criminal”. It’s still clouded with kindred towering darkness, but with a crescendoing build heaving its way through the added electronic fuzz and glitchiness, Crack Cloud sound determined — more battle-ready to take on the impending doom that lies above and beyond them. Here, the monastic mourning of the song prior has evolved into choral levity, breathing life and shining light in front of Choy as he unleashes an unhinged spitfire verse like daggers thrown at the enemy at large.

Giving way to the falling action of Tough Baby, the gradual relief of “115 At Night” is fully realized in “Afterthought (Sukhi’s Prayer)”. With its posture of communal celebration, those same choral voices soar even higher; hands clap with purpose, and the band’s playing flies with paralleled elation. This is the record’s Power Rangers Megazord-slaying-the-giant-monster moment; the exhale after defeating evil, the quintessential rise-from-the-ashes-type scene. “The last song of the album,” as Choy misleads, possesses a similar heart and purpose gleaned in childhood stories told to us at bedtime. It never leads you astray from innocence; it teaches a lesson — to “learn from what you can’t erase … you’ve got to embrace.” But most importantly, as is the case with all children’s stories, you know who or what wins in the end. The hero wins; in this case, that hero was raised by a village—communal and empathetic.

It’s clear Tough Baby cherishes the naivete of youth, which anyone can unite and commemorate under despite lingering childhood trauma and eventual awakening into adulthood. But that doesn’t mean Tough Baby isn’t bereft of a little bit of fiendish foolery. Don’t forget, nor neglect; the world still wields gnashing teeth and an appetite for innocence. Crack Cloud know this much so. Which is why there’s still some weary-eyed viciousness and neurotic wasteland-wandering left over from Pain Olympics to expel on Tough Baby.

With the sound of twisted laughter commencing the ceaseless knock of percussion rolling beneath and between Choy’s rapid-fire rapped vocals, “Virtuous Industry” channels the same hyperactive lunacy their debut captured so effortlessly. Then there’s the actual closer, a new version of the previously released “Crackin Up”, which punctuates a rather peace-driven project in havoc, befitting the band’s innate ways. “Crackin Up” wreaks havoc in the face of peace and opens an off-kilter window to peer into, presenting images of delinquency, alienation, and antagonism to remind listeners that a cruel world is still very much in play.

Aside from a few feral moments that wink at their past, Tough Baby sees Crack Cloud at a place of artistic maturity. Compared to the wild-eyed fury of their debut, they’ve taken a much clearer and more measured thematic road, grappling with the concept of a calloused heart, a hard nose, and the apathy that comes when those in power tell you “no” and “too bad”. In the end, however, Crack Cloud’s latest tells listeners to fight that creeping disposition that leans cynical — to suspend belief and tap into that childlike wonder and devotion to things we once deemed to be good and true.

This is a record that feels whole and woven with direction and intent. It may disappoint some who desire the disjointed immediacy of Pain Olympics, but don’t discount Tough Baby just because of its lack of single-worthy material. Give it time to allow its message of hope and empathy amidst disarray to take hold.